With Pain and Gain, Michael Bay attempts to tell his own Scorsese-esque crime biopic. The result isn’t as bad as you might expect. In fact, Pain and Gain is a pretty damn good movie. That’s partially because Bay resisted the impulse to turn this into a slam-bang action flick with constant explosions and partially because he finally found subject matter that fit his sensibilities as a director like a glove.
Pain and Gain tells the supposedly true story of Daniel Lugo (Mark Whalberg), an overly ambitious personal trainer who was arrested and sentenced to death following a crime spree that ultimately ended with millions of dollars stolen and two people dead. Set in Miami during the mid ‘90s, we’re introduced to Lugo following his release from prison on white collar charges. Via narration we learn that Lugo is extremely driven, but also narcissistic and gullible. He announces that his heroes are all self-made men, but reveals them to be Scarface and Vito Corleone. Fantasy and the real world blend together for him. He takes kitschy self-help seminars and Hollywood action movies as guides to live by.
Nevertheless, things appear to be going well for the dimwitted weightlifter. He holds down a full-time job and has a fairly large and influential client base. One of these clients is Victor Kershaw (Tony Shalhoub), an arrogant, white collar criminal of Jewish and South American descent. Suddenly, Lugo isn’t so satisfied with his position in the world. He envies the scrawny immigrant for his wealth and influence and in turn feels slighted. Why should he, a self-made superman, have to bow and scrape to an abrasive, physically inferior foreigner? So he creates and enacts his own self-help plan to get rich: he enlists two equally stupid body-building friends (Dwayne Johnson and Anthony Mackie) to assist him in kidnapping Kershaw and taking him for everything he’s worth.
At first blush this sordid tale of kidnapping, robbery, substance abuse, and murder seems perfect for someone of Michael Mann’s or Martin Scorsese’s caliber. However, upon stepping back and actually looking at the material, Michael Bay isn’t a bad choice. The characters in this story are misogynist, weightlifting cokeheads living in Miami, Florida. This is one case where Michael Bay’s penchant for packing his movies with fast cars, scantily clad women, and macho bullshit actually works. Daniel Lugo is the kind of man who watches and lives by Michael Bay’s movies. The real Daniel Lugo probably wants someone like Michael Bay to tell his life’s story.
Pain and Gain is also fairly muted for a Michael Bay movie. The flick contains only one explosion and a surprising amount of dialogue and character development. This is a plot-driven film that relies on a cast of solid actors including Mark Whalberg, Dwayne Johnson, Ed Harris, Tony Shaloub, and Rob Corddry. Bay may add his typical hyper-kinetic flourishes to the film’s editing and compositions, but those flourishes really embody how these characters perceive their own story. Nothing Bay does here distracts.
Quite frankly, I’m surprised I liked this movie so much. I’m pretty much the complete opposite of a Michael Bay fanboy. I caught Transformers 2 in theaters and it was the worst theatrical experience of my entire life. He usually makes over amped garbage for teenage boys, but here he’s made a fairly deliberate, intelligent movie. The hyperkinetic, puerile perspective is still present, but now there’s a sense of irony behind it. Bay isn’t championing the characters of Pain and Gain, he’s mocking them. In a way, it’s as if he’s mocking his own fanbase. It’s amazing.
Now I doubt that Michael Bay is ready to turn over a new leaf. I doubt Pain and Gain marks Bay’s induction into the world of serious filmmaking. However, I hope Michael Bay continues to make more movies like this. The film is well cast with Mark Whalberg and Dwayne Johnson turning in particularly strong performances. As Daniel Lugo, Whalberg appears to be channeling a muscle-bound Dirk Diggler from Boogie Nights. Meanwhile the script is surprisingly clever, and Bay’s own direction effectively underscores the material.
Pain and Gain isn’t the best movie I’ve seen this year, but it has to be the most surprising. Compared to the rest of Bay’s filmography, Pain and Gain may well be his Goodfellas. This flick proves that Michael Bay can make a legitimately decent movie if the stars align. Now that’s something.